Records of health care costs should be public, experts say
The amount paid toward health insurance coverage for elected officials and municipal employees is public information and should not be withheld because of the "HIPAA" law.
That is the opinion of Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association,
and Kim McNally de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition (FOIC), who were consulted about the city of Shamokin's stance in rejecting Right-to-Know requests for those records.
Melewsky and de Bourbon said the Right-to-Know Law spells out that such records should be public, and cited a 2009 ruling from the state's Office of Open Records (OOR) in which Luzerne County was ordered to provide similar records.
De Bourbon said the tipping point in such cases is whether there is "individually identifiable health information," which is what the Right-to-Know Law says may be withheld. But, "That's information about an individual's health or medical treatment," she said, "not how much the city pays for the individual's insurance coverage."
As long as someone is seeking insurance plan costs and not copies of insurance bills that would disclose treatments or medical conditions, the records should be open, she said. Exceptions in the law don't apply to financial records, although personal information can be redacted.
Shamokin identified the health, life and vision group benefits costs for council members, the mayor, controller, solicitor, community development officer and secretary as one line item in the 2012 budget; the total was $121,901. But city clerk and Right-to-Know officer Steve Bartos said to provide individual costs would violate HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
He denied a Right-to-Know request from The News-Item in November and four requests from Northumberland County Commissioner Chairman Vinny Clausi in November and December. The two parties did not know about the other's requests.
The News-Item, which did not appeal the denial, asked for individual health care cost information as part of its reporting on the city budget.
Clausi said he was seeking the information on behalf of three city residents. Clausi appealed the ruling to the OOR, but it was denied due to a filing error.
In a brief supporting the "intervenor" in the Luzerne County case, Melewsky wrote that if the court supported the contention that HIPAA precludes access to financial records showing health care costs, "it would constitute a significant departure from the letter and intent of the Right-to-Know Law and would do great harm to the public's ability to understand and evaluate public spending by public agencies."
Luzerne County appealed OOR's ruling, but a final determination of that case could not be obtained over the past few days.